Hate when you land on a site crawling with ads? So does Google, apparently. Google spam expert Matt Cutts said Wednesday that Google is considering penalizing ad-heavy sites in its search results, putting ad-happy webmasters on notice and making business analysts scratch their heads at the latest gospel from the Google god. Ads are still Google’s revenue model, right?
Let’s not kid ourselves. Online advertising is the “gasoline that runs much of the Web,” as Seattle-based SEO and Web strategist Cyrus Shepard put it on the SEOMoz blog. I get that. It’s everywhere, and it has to be, if most sites (and pretty much all media sites) are going to exist. But few places can you find ads as intrusive, unpredictable and untrustworthy as on the Web.
Sure, plenty of ads behave, sitting sweetly on the sidelines. But the crap that even reputable sites and their visitors will put up with is one of the great mysteries of the Web to me, and an indicator of the strength of the economics.
Most likely, a Google clean-up would address quantity more than quality and maybe, just maybe, help kill off those icky content farms. But I’m going to go ahead and dream that it sparks a hunger for higher standards in all online advertising. In fact, I hope it’s the beginning of the end of online display ads as we know them — from Google and everyone else.
Here are five ranting reasons why.
It’s them versus you
On TV and radio, ads play nice with content: They take turns. When a show breaks for commercial, ads have the whole screen, the whole frequency, to make their pitch. Online, ads coexist with content on the same screen, having to compete with content you care about for your attention.
I’m one of those people who actually likes watching TV commercials (OK, Hulu commercials), and not just during the Super Bowl. Enough of them are clever and interesting to keep me tuned in. And why not? It’s not like I can turn away and get back to my show.
But online display ads are often too busy distracting you from the site’s content to weave a story, tell a good joke, or otherwise engage you in any way you might hope to appreciate. When I’m the middle of a great blog post and some ad manages to break my concentration, it wins, I lose, and I get pissed, no matter how cool the ad thinks it is.
I came here to read something, not fight for my right to focus. The medium pits the ads against the content, and, in turn, you. Gross.
They turn websites into minefields
There are few things I hate looking up more than song lyrics. Is there any more popular, legit search that leads to sites so clearly overrun by the scum of the ad world?
I go in all spy-like, looking left, looking right. What will I have to shoot down to read the first verse? Sometimes, it’s all clear. Usually, I’m attacked head-on by a shampoo commercial that starts auto-playing from somewhere in the depths of the page, a pop-up urging me to make the song my ringtone, a congratulations on a free iPad triggered by some voodoo mouse-over — or all three.
This is an extreme example, but even reputable sites with reputable brands trap your mouse if it wanders. Suddenly the article you’re reading is moving down the page and you’re staring at a real estate ad you couldn’t care less about. Mine after mine leaves you bruised, battered and seriously ticked off. Enough.
Bad ads ruin the good
When media sites don’t sell all their ad inventory, some sell the leftover, or “remnant” ads to third-party ad networks or ad exchanges at a deep discount. This is how brands like CNN, ABC News and others whose mission is to provide readers with great information ended up helping shady businesses snare the un-savvy with promises of cheap teeth whitening, diet miracles, home money-making schemes and other nasty deals (though lately, thank goodness, some top media brands are finding a better alternative).
So there they are — deceptive, demeaning traps occupying the same space today that an ad for a national nonprofit or a local restaurant will take tomorrow. The result? A growing distrust of all ads, and worse, the sites that run them.
Last year, those acai berry ads with the pretty reporter’s face were everywhere. In April, they became the target of a Federal Trade Commission takedown. (That pretty reporter, by the way, is France’s Melissa Theuriau, and her image was stolen.)
“This type of junk shouldn’t be allowed,” Danny Sullivan wrote about a similarly deceptive ad served up by Google’s own DoubleClick ad network. I agree.
Their attempts at relevance misfire
I want to be a mom someday. But when I see those ads telling me that a “53-year-old Lakewood Mom looks 30″ or “makes Botox doctors furious,” I think twice. Who are the moms these shady advertisers are so confident they can lure? Besides, I live in Seattle, not Lakewood.
Failed attempts at relevance make ads all the more infuriating. And again, it’s not just the shady ads that sin. Where I’m writing here in Napa, California, I went to Seattlepi.com, which served up an ad for Google Offers that could help me discover “deals on the things that make Denver the best place to live.” Denver, huh?
Relevance is hard online. Appealing to our better selves, apparently, is harder. Facebook has the data to know what I care about, but then it serves me an ad asking if I’m a “female entrepreneur” who wants to find success with no sacrifice through the power of sensuality. F that.
They don’t fit on tablets or mobile
Here’s the kicker. The technology and user experience of the smartphone and yes, even the tablet, offers freedom from some of the worst habits of Web-based advertising. And I have to believe consumers will take it.
First, the phone. That little screen makes a big difference. Content has to come first in mobile apps if brands can even hope to draw downloads, and there just isn’t enough room for lots of ads to shout and scream over that little screen. Nor enough room for tolerance from mobile users to put up with them.
Now the tablet. In May I heard Greg Clayman, publisher of the iPad-only news magazine “The Daily,” talk about how ads work on the site. Essentially, they’re content. Like a print magazine, each full-screen ad has room to breathe and be beautiful without having to work as hard to pull you away from something else. Unlike a print magazine, ads on “The Daily” can be interactive. And the more the ads resemble timely content — a sporting goods ad updates the score of the game, for example — the more successful the ads appear to be. With 120,000 active weekly readers, The Daily has a ways to go before it can prove what works. Still, I hope they’re onto something.
We’ve got to demand better.
Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.